By Kieran Hanrahan.
Some of us have better eyesight than others.
Some of us have better hearing that others. Only 1 person in every 400 has perfect pitch, which, when you think about it, means that the other 399 have a physical impairment. Statistically that means every single person in this room probably has at least one impairment.
Some of you have more than one... I know I do! So I hope this alters your view of impairment or disability. It’s not about impairment or disability, it’s about diversity.
Some have better social skills. I bet we all know several people, with no obvious physical impairment, that can be said to be “emotionally challenged” - no mother-in-law jokes please!
In the medical model, the impairment was the problem. It was something to be “cured”.
Thankfully we have moved on, to a model of society, where the impairment is not the issue, the issue is how society arranges itself for people with impairments, how we cope with diversity.
If I am in a wheelchair, I don’t have a disability... so long as there is a ramp and not steps, so long as the doors don’t open out on top of me. Society has amended building regulations to make these and other design changes mandatory, so that people with a mobility impairment don’t have a disability imposed on them by the built environment. This is known as universal design and Ireland is the only country in the world (yeah!) with a statutory publically funded centre of excellence in universal design. www.universaldesign.ie
But the built environment is “old hat”. The fact that we’re at an un-conference, illustrates this change. The un-built environment, that Interweb thingy, that is where the action is at!
An IT guru type pointed to a dozen things, from people in jet packs flying into Dubai airport to Siri and said “Kieran, the future is now. It’s happening before our very eyes.” We’re easily persuaded as we both remember the original Star Trek, but his assertion is well judged.
In terms of rehabilitation, I suspect that the word and concept will pass into history very soon. Rehabilitation will become something we did “back in the dark ages”. Medical science and technology are moving so rapidly that restoration of function is the goal.
Oddly it all started with Oscar Pistorius! The reason it took so long for him to be admitted to the summer Olympiad was the fear that his blades were so advanced that they conferred a physical advantage over his “able bodied” peers. Think about that. Someone with a physical impairment can access a technological solution that doesn’t just replace the lost function, it exceeds it. In Manchester this year Second Sight Inc implanted a bionic eye into a volunteer that feeds its video data directly into the optic nerve.
The goal has moved to restoring lost function and not simply rehabilitating people to cope with their impairment. Most of this work has focused on physical impairments.
But the un-built environment holds far greater potential.
A mobile phone app that uses augmented reality to ‘read’ signs can translate these into symbols on the screen for people with dyslexia or voice prompts for those with impaired vision. Another app – a mention to Dr Cathal Gurrin in DCU– could use face recognition software and prompts someone with memory loss as to who they are meeting right now, where they met before, what their interest is in them... and even whether they like them or not!
“Oh no, it’s that guy from accounts!”
The un-built environment needs some universal design.